Expenses Related to Corporal Punishment in France

Expenses Related to Corporal Punishment in France

By William Chester Jordan

Paper given at the session: Guilt and Punishment in the Fourteenth Century, at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2013)

Detail of a historiated initial 'C'(rimen) of a man hanging from gallows. Photo courtesy British Library

While the Middle Ages had a low level of policing compared to the modern state, it did have various officials, such as sheriffs and beadles, whose job it was to enforce laws and apprehend criminals. Judges were also needed as well, to hand down punishments, while guards had to be around too, in order to make sure prisoners did not escape.

All of these men had to be paid for their duties, sometimes by wages, sometimes by getting a share of confiscated goods. It was not uncommon for bribes to be asked for and given as well.

William Chester Jordan, Professor of History at Princeton University, looks at the various costs of dealing with crime in France during the High Middle Ages. He finds that in thirteenth-century France there was a new emphasis towards the “spectacularization of punishments.” Jordan believes that the growth in executions and corporal punishments during this period is indicative of a state that feels the need to compel its people into following its laws and making displays of its power. This is especially true when their is competition for control of the state, as there was during the Hundred Years War.

Jordan points out several examples of payments being made for the exercise of justice in Capetian France. In one record it was found that 52 shillings were paid to two hangman for their role in an execution – this was the equivalent of one and half month’s wages for a typical workman during the period.

Meanwhile, the punishment for false moneyers – that is being boiled alive – required local officials to purchase a pot big enough to fit a person in. Jordan notes that these pots would have only been used for this purpose and such vessels could be used for decades, if not hundreds of years, before they needed to be replaced. He adds that people executed in this grisly fashion would only be boiled long enough to kill them, then their bodies would be hanged for public display.

There would also be more mundane expenses, such as for rope and wood. If the convicted felon had escaped or died before his punishment could be handed out, authorities would use an effigy in his place, often a painting of the person made for that purpose.

Jordan concludes that the growth of punishments in France was “a rather costly enterprise,” as the people who did the dirty work of carrying them out needed to be paid well. But the state made this investment in order to secure social peace.

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